Boatbuilding Finishes: Paint, Varnish and Two-Part Clearcoat

Come time to transform into a showpiece your newly-built canoe, kayak or sailboat, whether you built it from a plan set from Dynamite Payson or from any of the number of stitch-and-glue kayak designers such as Chesapeake Light Craft, you have two choices: bright and workboat.

Of the two, bright is probably the most popular choice among first time builders, likely because bright strikes the untrained eye as the most beautiful.

Bright means you apply to every square inch of your sanded hull a half-dozen or so coats of varnish, three coats of two-part clear coat or both. It’s a nice finish that lends to a wooden boat a classy if over-obvious look.

Deck, hatches, coaming, hull � their grain and contours combine to form a richly varied pattern of swirls, whorls, waves, ripples.

Bright is an eye-catching look. On strip-built sea kayaks and canoes, it adds an attractive flourish.

That being said, you can probably understand why most first-timers choose bright.

There are drawbacks to a bright finish, however.

While a bright finish can be stunning visually, especially at first look, every mistake you make in your application of epoxy, filler, or bonding agents stands out. Fiberglass turns transparent when it’s saturated with epoxy; after you apply varnish or clear-coat, the grains and figures in the wood gain visual depth beneath varnish or clearcoat, but so do your mistakes — the scrapes, nicks and gouges in the wood that sometimes occur while building.

Likewise discolorations in the wood, such as stains, or mars you inflicted on the wood with hand tools.

Each flaw detracts from a bright finish. This increases building time. You have to be fanatical while building if you plan to finish bright. Place the wood on cardboard, not the workshop floor, while building. Sand out scuffs from staple guns, hand tools, chisels.

There is another challenge inherent in building bright. You cannot fair dips or hollows in the hull with fairing compound.

Finally, to build an all-bright boat with a deep, clean look, you need to apply at least six coats of varnish or three coats of clearcoat. That represents many, many hours of sanding and curing time.

Also, applying varnish is difficult: varnishing on a humid day clouds the varnish; applying in direct sunlight makes maintaining a wet edge, crucial to preventing lap marks, difficult.

And varnish, though beautiful, is fragile: it’s soft, scratches easily, and looks shabby if it has even just a small handful of milky-looking scratches, scrapes, gouges.

So to preserve that painstaking finish you have to be fussy about landing and launching lest sand, rocks or pebbles scratch your hull.

The alternative is workboat: varnish, two-part clear-coat or both, only on the deck, with paint or stain on the hull.

Workboat is a classy alternative to the overly refined if hackneyed look of bright. Workboat sets off the beauty of the grain and wood in the deck with a complementary color on the hull. Like a picture frame, paint or stain on the hull accentuates the beauty of a wooden hull.

To achieve a workboat finish, apply varnish or two-part clearcoat to the deck, hatches and coaming. Add to the shearline or along the perimeter of the hull a bootstripe to frame the deck. Paint or stain everything else.

In the end, you apply and wetsand less varnish or clearcot (and have that many fewer scratches to fret over), but also personalize your kayak or canoe so that it’s distinguishable from every other all-bright boat at the wooden boat gathering on the shore. With workboat, you varnish or clearcoat some wood.

Keywords for this story are boat building, wooden boatbuilding, stitch-and-glue kayaks, strip built canoes and kayaks, varnishing and painting.

About the writer: kayak fishing guide and boatbuilder Adam Bolonsky writes frequently about the outdoors for Sea Kayaking Dot Net and NorthAmericanKayakFishing.

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